County Hall's veteran deputy leader and a Carterton backbencher are the first to publically throw their hats into the upcoming council leadership contest.

Oxfordshire County Council leader, Conservative Keith Mitchell, will step down from the role in May, after more than a decade in office.

The leadership of the party, and the council, will be settled by 52 Tory councillors in a private vote understood to be taking place at the group’s annual general meeting on April 26.

Nominations open on April 12 but, with an informal group hustings on March 20, candidates are beginning to come forward.

Deputy leader David Robertson and councillor Pete Handley are the first to publically announce they will stand.

Mr Robertson represents Witney East and has served as a cabinet member for a decade and as Mr Mitchell’s deputy since 2007.

He said: “I can confirm my name will go forward. It is a bit too early to make any further statement.”

Mr Handley, member for Carterton South West, signalled he wanted to move the party away from Mr Mitchell’s style of leadership.

He said: “I believe we need to put the power back to the group and not what we have had in the last few years, where power has been left with one man.”

Councillors Ian Hudspeth and Nick Carter, who both stood against Mr Mitchell in a surprise leadership election last year, have not yet confirmed they will stand.

Mr Hudspeth, who represents Woodstock, said: “I am flattered if people are considering I am suitable for the position and we will see what is decided in the future.

“I will talk with my colleagues and then, depending on that outcome, may put my name forward.”

Mr Carter, who represents Thame & Chinnor, said: “I have not felt inclined so far to make a formal declaration of intent. I am still exploring the options.”

The winning candidate must receive 50 per cent of the vote to become the new leader.

If no-one gets 50 per cent in the first round, the person with the least votes will be removed and the election will go to a second round and so on until one candidate secures an overall majority.

The new leader will have just 12 months to prepare for the county council election in May 2013.

Councillor Bill Service, member for Didcot Ladygrove, said: “It is huge because Keith has been leader for some 11 years now.

“He is going to be a hard act to follow, for sure, and it is hugely important we get the right person.

“When they do their presentations we will vote on that, but it is also important to look at their past record and how they served the council.”

He added he suspected the leadership battle would be “very close”.